Both releases are likely to prove among the best sellers of the year
The Killers and Foo Fighters’ new albums may roll rock to a crossroads
September 22, two of the world’s biggest rock bands, get into the ring, with The Killers’ first album in five years, Wonderful Wonderful, released exactly seven days after the Foo Fighters’ latest outing, Concrete & Gold.
These American heavyweights sit alongside a handful of modern, pre-vintage rock groups that are capable of selling out stadiums alone, and both releases are likely to prove among the best sellers of the year.
But in 2017, with the album under assault from all quarters digitally, one wonders if these releases signal a spirited resurgence of the good old LP – or the format’s last dying breath.
Both releases come packed with ceremony. Never afraid of an ambitious conceit, the Foo Fighters appear to have thrown the kitchen sink at this one, bringing in bestselling pop producer Greg Kurstin to add a commercial ear to their brand of anthemic grunge rock.
The writer-producer behind Adele’s comeback smash Hello, Kurstin is credited with selling more than 60 million records for the likes of Sia, Zayn, Ellie Goulding, Gwen Stefani, Kelly Clarkson and Kylie Minogue – hardly the Foo’s target audience.
And after teasing the world that Concrete & Gold would feature a guest vocal from “probably the biggest pop star in the world” – prompting understandable speculation that Adele might feature – with clinical PR public relations timing, frontman Dave Grohl revealed, a week before the release, that Justin Timberlake was in fact the record’s mystery star.
Well, one of them, with oddball guest appearances on the band’s ninth LP earlier confirmed by Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman, Alison Mosshart of The Kills, smooth jazz saxophonist Dave Koz and some guy called Paul McCartney on drums.
The fact Grohl himself – who will never be allowed to forget that he was once the drummer of Nirvana – is doubtless a better hard rock percussionist than the bassist in The Beatles, seems to have been lost amid the stardust. By contrast, The Killers’ latest outing was teased with just one banner name, Mark Knopfler, the Dire Straits leader called on to shower his distinctive guitar work on album closer, Have All the Songs Been Written?
Following up Battle Born after almost exactly five years – during which time frontman Brandon Flowers found time for a second solo album, 2015’s The Desired Effect – there is a sense of do-or-die surrounding The Killers’ fifth outing. Not least since it was recently revealed two of the Las Vegas quartet – guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer – have quit touring duties, leaving their parts to session musicians onstage.
It was hard not to detect a healthy slab of irony in the machismo strut of opening single The Man. “I got money in the bank ... I got a household name,” crows Flowers over an evergreen, mid-tempo, electro-pop stomp.
Yet listening again now, following the fragmentation of his band, one imagines a hidden statement of intent in Flowers’ repeated assertion that “nothing can break me down”.
Driven by a faster beat, the more promising follow-up single Run for Cover sports the same brand of throbbing bass, inflexibly on-the-beat guitar stabs and stadium sized chorus The Killers built their chart-topping, 1980s-aping early sound on. No surprises, then, to find the track dates back close to a decade, an offcut from 2008’s Day & Age – perhaps held over due to a credited quote from Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.
Also teased in advance was the album’s title track, a slow-burning, bass-driven dirge which cascades via chiming bells, screeching strings and electronic warbles into a frenzied climax which sounds like Flowers’ world is anything but “Wonderful Wonderful”.
On the surface, The Killers’ gloss-pop sheen may share little with the Foo Fighters’ relentless rawk-riffing. Yet artistically and professionally, both acts appear to be approaching a similar career crossroads – as much the result of a music industry in flux and on its knees as the personal ardours of being in a band.
When Grohl suffered his infamous injury in 2015 – a broken leg sustained after falling from a stage in Sweden – the Foo Fighters were forced to cancel a career-topping headline set at the United Kingdom’s popular Glastonbury Festival. While Grohl struggled on to later complete the tour, performing atop a theatrical throne, a band hiatus was called soon after.
Unable to walk despite hours of daily therapy, the frontman cut himself off from his band, and pledged to stay away from music for an entire year. Exactly six months later, the myth goes, Grohl began writing the defiant Run – an epic head-banger which became Concrete & Gold’s first single.
Isolated but inspired – “sat there in my underwear with a microphone”, as he told Rolling Stone – Grohl wrote around a dozen more ideas before reaching out to Kurstin, citing his love for The Bird and the Bee, a decade-old indie-pop duo pairing the producer with singer Inara George, who also guests on the latest offering.
Run’s release was followed by the punchy blues-metal plod The Sky is A Neighbourhood and relentless radio-rocker The Line which, if nothing else, assured fans that Kurstin’s presence meant no grand change of direction for the band.
All the elements Foo Fighters fans have known and grown to love over the past two decades – monster truck guitar riffs, strained, single-syllable vocal exertions, sledgehammer percussion and an earnest, chest-thumping delivery – were all present, correct and accounted for.
What seems most remarkable is that however far Grohl steps away from his comfort zone, how uniformly similar the results remain.
The Killers occupy a vastly different sonic territory, with the band’s brand of anthemic indie-pop evolving to take in retro-electro excursions, formulaic classic rock posturing and Springsteen-esque small-town storytelling.
Yet in 2017, both bands find themselves attempting the same sleight-of-hand – selling albums in an age where people no longer feel the need to buy compact discs.
The past decade has seen both acts experience a dramatic drop in sales. In 2004, The Killers emerged as overnight stars, with debut album Hot Fuss selling seven million copies worldwide, with follow-ups Sam’s Town and Day & Age clocking 4.5 million and 3 million, in 2006 and 2008 respectively. Yet 2012’s Battle Born sold just one million copies.
In the same period, the Foos saw domestic US-only sales of 1.5 million for 2005’s In Your Honor, dipping to 900,000 just two years later for Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, and spiralling to 490,000 for 2014’s album, Sonic Highways.
Yet during this time, both bands’ live audience has only swollen. In 2013 – shortly before their appearance at Dubai’s now-defunct Sandance festival – The Killers headlined London’s Wembley Stadium for the first time, banking more than US$5 million (Dh18m) on a single night playing to 70,000 fans. The Foo’s last world tour took $68m, and this summer the band finally made good on their Glastonbury Festival headline slot.
The sliding record sales can, of course, largely be attributed to the slow death of CD sales worldwide, with notable newer acts in younger genres often eschewing albums altogether in favour of one-off tracks aimed at the streaming market.
It’s an industry wide concern. One of this year’s other biggest rock releases came from Kasabian – the lad-rock quartet who sold more than 800,000 copies of their first three albums in the UK alone, but clocked just gold certification marking 100,000 sales of For Crying Out Loud.
In an interview with filmmaker Cameron Crowe, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready recently revealed that the iconic grunge band were debating the relevance of recording another album, adding: “I feel like we can go out and tour even if we don’t have a record out.”
In this online-first climate, it is increasingly easy to imagine that, within a decade from now, few rock bands will have the will – or the financial support – to put themselves through the arduous rigmarole of a big-budget conventional album release. The long-prophesised death of the LP as we know it may just finally be nigh.
Which is why much more than the fate of two bands’ fortunes could prove to be at stake right now – in both The Killers’ and the Foo Fighters’ new releases, listeners have a litmus test for the rock album as a viable artform – as do the record companies that bankroll them.
The Killers’ Wonderful Wonderful and the Foo Fighters’ Concrete & Gold are out now.